Photo: Jeff Neumann/Hulu
Inside An American Hip-Hop Saga: The Wu-Tang Clan Story Enters A New Chapter
Almost 20 years after Carl Douglas dropped a #1 disco hit, "Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting," ten other black men showed up to the fight, but they had swords. On Nov. 9, 1993 RZA, GZA, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God, Masta Killa and later Cappadonna collectively entered battle as Wu-Tang Clan with their groundbreaking Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, forever altering the sound of hip-hop.
What would come next, no one could have predicted: Seven group albums—including multi-platinum projects and The Guinness Book of Records most valuable album, which sold for $2 million—almost 90 albums recorded collectively, clothing lines, videogames, arguably the most iconic and recognizable logo in music, a GRAMMY and EMMY nomination, and now an original scripted series Wu-Tang: An American Saga premiering on Hulu this week.
Earlier this year, members of the Wu helped executive produce Showtime's Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, which explored the dynamics of the group. So, do fans need another look now? There are many ways to tell a story, especially a good one. Add to that, there are ten (very different) stories intertwined into one, and even with all the international acclaim and accolades, hip-hop's most influential rap group is still a bit of a conundrum.
How exactly did 10 emcees (mostly) from Staten Island combine martial arts, The Five-Percent Nation's spiritual principles, Stapleton Housing Projects and gritty street tales—and actually win? And they didn't just win, they took the whole jackpot, transporting themselves from the hood to heaven right before our eyes.
"I don't think the world had ever seen something so potent at one time," Raekwon tells the Recording Academy. "No one had seen a group of nine emcees like us with so much charisma and talent."
Vision helped, too. You cannot discuss the success of Wu without mentioning RZA, the mastermind behind the Wu collective. Wu-Tang was his brainchild, and while there is no "Beyoncé" or "Michael Jackson" in Wu, there certainly was a Matthew Knowles or Berry Gordy. RZA was that, and more. However, he was not without reproach.
"There were some things we felt we needed to shine light on," Raekwon says. "And we would have to speak up and that would make him work even harder when producing those songs for all of us."
A master producer, with an unconventional and genius approach, RZA was a clear visionary who saw that the sum of something could be larger than its parts.
And perhaps it was actually Wu-Tang that did not allow us to crown a group leader, and make inevitable comparisons. Their unique contract with Loud Records provided freedom for Wu to pursue solo projects, and many branched off early (while remaining a part of the collective unit), to showcase the very skillsets that helped distinguish each member from the other. It is hard to make comparisons in the clique, because each member brings such a unique element. It's like trying to pick between steak and chicken, both are good. It just depends on what you have a taste for in that moment. It is about preference, nothing more.
"Sometimes it can be Genius, or Meth, or Cap," says U-God when we asked about his favorite group mate, besides himself of course. "When you're around so many emcees, and everyone has their own style, it's hard to pick a favorite."
But it didn't stop them from creating like they were favorites. They hit us back to back, after the release of Enter the Wu-Tang. Setting them up like dominos, six of the then nine members dropped solo projects before their sophomore, ground breaking Wu album, Wu Tang Forever. First up (excluding RZA's 6 Feet Deep album with Gravediggaz) was the powerhouse Tical in 1994 from the charismatic and raspy voice of the Wu, Method Man. His swag and sex appeal even got us ladies to listen, or at least look.
In 1995, when L.A. rap was still dominating charts, Wu dropped Ol' Dirty Bastard's Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, and GZA/Genius' Liquid Swords. Wu had its Wallabee shoe on the industry's neck and wasn't letting up.
Ol' Dirty Bastard's Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version was a classic in its own right, for reasons different from the others. The late beloved Dirt McGirt, a cousin of RZA, was the uninhibited, raw, colorful, wild child of the group whose zany singing and surprisingly impressive bars made ordinary songs extraordinary.
And then there was Raekwon. Often considered the best solo project of the Wu, Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (also referred to as the Purple Tape because of the case coloring) is a certified classic with precise lyrics, epic storytelling, a keen Mafiosi style and an assist from Ghostface. GZA, a cult favorite and cerebral member of the Wu, also dropped an equally important album with Liquid Swords. The flawless production, profound wordplay and impeccable execution are remarkable.
But they still had more. In 1996, putting the rap game in a tighter chokehold, Ghostface Killah released Ironman, cementing his spot as a frontrunner with his natural way with verbs and nouns, strong voice (with a hint of disrespect), and vivid, emotional storytelling gifts. He created visual stories with his words and the influx of his voice alone.
Alone. A funny word to use when describing Wu Tang. The critical success of one of the biggest music groups in the world is not because of one person, one verse, or one sound. It is the resounding sound of an against all odds triumph that emerged from the belly of Wu-Tang.
Frontrunners like Raekwon, Ghostface, ODB, and Method Man get most of the shine, even in this article, but Inspectah Deck, U-God, GZA, Masta Killa and Cappadonna are all integral ingredients in the sauce that is Wu-Tang. Many of them have created amazing bodies of work that haven't received attention or recognition, but things like timing, how the stars align and the way a cookie crumbles are hard to explain. The family will always remain family.
"Sometimes I wonder how we all came together, formulated this, and pulled it off," says U-God. "And I have no choice but to call them my brothers," he says.
Wu-Tang is indeed a family of strong brothers, and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Wu tang doesn't have any of those.